Angharad Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones (tr. Lloyd Jones) was my book group’s selection for this month. It is tiny – just about 150 pages – although it contains a full life history and in many ways could be considered a family saga. As the title suggests, it is the story of a woman named Rebecca Jones, born in 1905 in the small Welsh valley of Maesglasau. Rebecca is our narrator and she tells of each of her six siblings – five boys and another girl. Only five of these seven lived to adulthood, her four brothers and herself. A particularity of this family is that three of her brothers were blind, two from birth and the third losing his sight as a teenager.
The focus of this short novel is on family, on notions of home and duty and long-term relationships to the land and one’s origins. Rebecca takes care of each brother as he is born, of her parents as they age, of her brothers’ families as they grow. Theirs is a rural life and she goes into great detail of the work that must be done on their farm and their connection to the other farmers and the nearby villages. It is a book that lovingly describes what it must have been like to live in rural Wales across the span of the 20th century. I found the discussions of language fascinating, as her blind brothers were schooled in England and had to learn to negotiate their bilingualism and their Welsh-ness.
I will admit right away that while I enjoyed reading this story, it isn’t a book that set off any immediate readerly explosions for me. I often prefer a less straightforward kind of storytelling, and much of the book is composed of exposition detailing the history and daily lives of each of the book’s characters. It doesn’t read – at least not all of the time – like a novel. At the same time, there is quite a bit of poetry mixed throughout, examples of verse from the famous Welsh poet Hugh Jones for one, but also each chapter opens with a lyrical portrait of the region or a kind of prologue in a style much different from the actual storytelling. This was an interesting structure, to put these two starkly different styles in juxtaposition, instead of telling the entire story in a more blended combination of the two.
Something I did find very beautiful came toward the end of the book, when Rebecca writes about the fact that she was never able to leave home and yet she yearned for foreign travel. Instead she travels the world over a series of months by using a local library and its books to see the things she has always wanted to see.
I cannot remember how long I spent travelling. Whether it was days, weeks, months, I cannot say. It was a time of sweet enthralment, and for the first time in my life I felt carefree. I was away for so long I forgot about home.
I think most readers will find a lovely truth in these passages. How books can take you away from yourself but also become an inseparable part of you. How they change and liberate you.
The frame of the book is that Rebecca Jones is at the end of her life and looking back over her experiences, telling us of her “self”. Using this frame, which becomes more pronounced at the very end of the book, she engages in a short discussion on memory:
I sometimes think that the act of remembering life gives more pleasure than living itself. We can select, delete, amplify, recreate, interpret memories. But life itself is unpredictable and unruly. Certain things can be recalled at will; others thrown into the bottomless pit of forgetting. We can choose when to laugh and to cry; when to challenge and to submit. Such is the privilege of remembering.
This particular passage goes on then to mean something else by the time you hit the very last page of the book – in which a large surprise awaits the reader. I have mixed feelings about the surprise (mixed feelings which have more to do with my looking at the book as a writer who is somewhat obsessed with structure and how structure affects meaning), but it adds an interesting layer of metafiction to this very short novel, and does make the book so much more than a family history.
Finally, both the Afterword and the Translator’s Note invited me to look back over The Life of Rebecca Jones and consider it from a few different angles. The translation angle interests me the most, especially because the book was originally published in 2002 and apparently for a long time people thought it might be impossible to translate. That is fascinating to me because of the expository parts of the book and how stark I found the contrast between those sections and the poetic interludes. It made me wonder how easily the Welsh was rendered into English, and if in the original these two sections were more blended.
Overall – and this is the best part of any good book – it has made me very curious to read further into translated Welsh fiction. Any suggestions?